San Felipe Sunrise

Joyce Laird 


Copyright 2004 by Joyce Laird


Photo of a sunrise over the sea. (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

I'd been kidnapped. The old gun-metal-gray 1962 VW Bug sped along I-5 heading south from Los Angeles towards San Diego. The actual destination was my partner's idea of a surprise birthday present. I wondered why he'd chosen the old bug instead of his new car, but I didn't mind. After a week of ten-hour days at the office, being kidnapped for a long weekend in Newport Beach or San Diego sounded like pure heaven. But when we passed Newport then went through San Diego and kept going, I began to wonder just what surprise he had up his sleeve.

We were both hitting late thirty-something, and had found each other quite by accident. I was a divorced, single mother. He was a sales rep for a company the firm I worked for did business with. Over lunch one day, we just seemed to hit it off.  Actually, nostalgia was the only real thing we had in common.  We had both been part of the great hippie scene of the sixties, and had come to the same cold realization that the dream of a "free life" was nothing more than colored wisps of smoke with no reality. The reality was getting on with life and solid employment, if you wanted to eat and have a decent roof over your head. We were a long cry from the in-your-face, idealistic youth of the sixties we once were. The idealism had faded away, replaced by the fast track yuppie life of the eighties. Business replaced idealism. Suits replaced saris and Levis with peace signs sewn over the tatters. There wasn't time for much more than trying to climb the corporate ladder and making sure that the new generation followed the "do what I say, not do what I did" mantra.

When there was breathing space that wasn't claimed by amusement parks for the kids or other social demands, a weekend in Santa Barbara or San Diego or one of the coastal towns in between were refreshing getaways. My birthday hit in mid September, so a long weekend was always nice around that time. There were no holidays to compete with and most out of state tourists had returned to wherever they had come from because of work and getting kids back in time to start school. I loved driving and I loved surprises. In the two years I'd known him, my guy was good at supplying both.

When he stopped to pick up Mexican insurance I thought, "Great. Rosarita Beach." It had been a long time since I'd stayed down there. The Pacific was good along the shore, although a little rocky in places.  If not wonderful, the food was adequate, and there were stables for horseback riding on the beach. I asked if that was the destination. He just smiled.

After crossing the border, struggling through the crowded streets of Tijuana and passing the tar paper and tin-box shacks of the slums surrounding it, he turned east, away from the Pacific coast and began a drive across country I’d never seen before. The road was almost decent, with only moderate pot holes here and there. It was nothing that the old bug couldn't handle. The scenery changed from the standard border town chaos of luxury homes and squalid shacks with nothing in between, to the vast desert and then to red sandstone cliffs dotted with huge saguaro cactus, gray-green and mottled, reaching to the sky like so many robbery victims. Some were taller than any I had ever seen in our deserts. Roadrunners dashed between the stately monuments and chuckawallas peered from tumbles of rocks.

"So where are we going?" I asked. 

"San Felipe," he replied.

"San Felipe. I've never been there. Do they have nice hotels?" 

"You'll see. Relax we've got about three more hours to go."

He had enough food packed in the ice chest for an army, and I'd come prepared, I thought, with enough clothes for a few days in the sun and a couple of romantic evenings at the nightspots in San Diego. San Felipe, San Diego . . . it made no difference. It would be a nice four days of being pampered by room service and watching sunsets from a secluded balcony.

The hours flew by as we followed the long highway south along the eastern side of Baja. The scenery, flora, fauna and residents changed dramatically the deeper south we drove. The roadway was dotted with little shrines. Some were a simple wooden cross with glass candle holders around it and flowers. Others were quite elaborate with monuments carved of stone with recessed areas containing beautifully painted statues of the Virgin Mother or other saints. All had the candles around them and flowers as if tended on a daily basis, although I did not see anyone around for miles.

A stream that widened into ponds at different points, ran parallel to us in the distance on the west side of the highway. Dusty cottonwoods, scrub oak, twisted red manzanita and tall deep green reeds thinned and thickened as the water either spread or disappeared under the ground as it ran southward to the sea. Huge flocks of snowy egrets filled the water areas. At times they would suddenly take flight, looking as if someone had suddenly popped a downy white feather pillow and poof! All the inner feathers had exploded at once into the vastness of the blue sky.

Two vaqueros appeared ahead, moving a small herd of mismatched cattle across the road. We stopped. I didn't believe that there really were people like this still in the world. Their bay horses danced across the road. My partner got out and stopped one to talk. He spoke Spanish. I didn't. Nada, si and gracias were the limit of my linguistic talents. I could only guess at what they were saying. The man was laughing and friendly. My friend gave the man something. His horse pawed the gravel impatiently as they spoke. Then the vaquero took off his tightly woven straw and leather sombrero and handed it to him. They exchanged a few more words and the vaquero pocketed a few dollars.  They shook hands and then the now bare headed vaquero kneed his horse into a canter, following his cohort and the small herd across the dusty plain toward a very tiny set of adobe and red tile roofs that just tipped the horizon line to the west.

"Here. It’ll keep the sun off of you. You'll need it," my partner said, slapping the sombrero on my head. It slid down over my eyes, filling my lungs with the smell of sweat and leather of it’s previous owner.

The Sea of Cortez was now wholly visible and spread to the east. It wasn't like the Pacific. There was no surf to mention and it looked deep blue -- almost black -- and very calm, like a huge, still, lake. Only the light salt smell of the fresh ocean side gave it away.  Small homes and trailer parks began to dot the coastline and far in the distance, I could see two gigantic white archways standing alone in the middle of the plain..

"That's the gateway to San Felipe ahead." he said. 

"Great. I need a good hot shower and a nap before dinner." 

"Hope you brought quarters." 


"Yea. You need them for the showers. But don't worry. I brought the soap."

He turned the bug off the highway and down a twisted dirt roadway leading to a small brick and adobe house with a soft drink machine on the porch. He stopped and went to the door. A plump woman with several small children came out. He gave her some money and returned to the car.

"What is this? Is this some sort of joke? C'mon." 

"Nope. This is your birthday surprise. Two days on the beach. Right on the beach. Living free like the old days -- a little bit of real fun again for a change."

He pulled onto the sand next to one of several carport type wood and thatch shelters. I got out and looked around. The beach was a vast stretch of snow white sparkling sand and empty except for about a dozen of these lean-to type affairs. They were basically four posts and a roof made of thin boards and bunched up dried palm leaves. A stone lined pit was next to each shelter. Just above this beach area, between us and the main house where he had paid the woman, were a line of hook ups for campers and trailers. All the spaces were now empty. Their occupants had packed up and pulled out, the season over for the year. Beyond the trailer spots was large cinder block building that looked like an old jail.

"That's where the showers are," he said. "It's fifty cents for ten minutes of water. There are toilets in there too. You don't have to pay for them." He started unpacking the car. I went to help. If this was it, I'd better roll with it and find some enjoyment or it was going to be one hell of an awful four days.

We spread a large canvas tarp under the open air cabana and covered it with several blankets. He staked the corners of the tarp so it wouldn't curl and then set up two low slung beach chairs and brought forth a bottle of wine from the ice chest. The sun was beginning to set over the shore. After trudging back up to the house to purchase fuel for the fire pit, we lit a fire.  A cool breeze came up, gentle and smooth.  It touched my face like a light silk scarf as it passed and lifted my hair lightly from the nape of my neck.  The fragrance on the breeze brought back a million memories all tumbling together in a rainbow of mellow images.  We sipped wine and ate a dinner of hot dogs grilled on sticks over the fire -- something I hadn't done since I was a free spirit, before corporate America had clutched my life, so many decades ago.

Giant palmetto bugs -- flying roach like critters the size of hummingbirds --zoomed past us and into the fire, attracted by it's mesmerizing waves of light. They made huge popping sounds as the bodies exploded in the flames. After several blackened hot dogs and a second glass of wine, the soft sound of the sea only yards beyond was enough to hypnotize me into one of the deepest and most peaceful nights of sleep I'd ever known.

At the light of dawn, I was amazed to see that the sea had pulled out at least a mile from the shore. The result was an open ocean bed with all of it's residents intact. I was like a child in a magical land. Bucket in hand, I wandered out over the rivulets of water that were left by the receding sea. The most amazing shells were everywhere, just lying there for the taking. Greedily I snatched them up and put them into my bucket. A small brown dog of nondescript breed had joined us on the beach. He romped and danced around my legs as I ventured through villages of conch shells and starfish and sand dollars. I had to be very careful not to pick shells that had residents.

As the sun rose higher, the warm water slowly began rolling back in. It didn't come raging with angry waves, like the oceans I was used to. It moved in softly, simply becoming higher and higher. It rose quite swiftly, finally reaching my waist before I could make it back to the shore, but the water was so dense in salt at that point in the gulf of Cortez, that it was more like warm, thick Jell-O than sea water. It lifted me to the top and gently carried me back to the shore, bucket and all. My partner had been waiting on the shore taking photos. The little dog danced all around as I excitedly presented my shells.

"Look at this," he said. He took my hand and started walking along the shore. He stopped and pointed back to where we had started walking. The sand was gleaming white and the only marks were our own tracks.

"It's like being the only people in the world," he said.

It was quite amazing and a feeling of peace I had not experienced for many years. However, the sand in my hair and the growl in my stomach brought me back to reality. A purse full of coins, towel and soap in hand, I headed for the stone shower room. Fifty cents didn't quite make five minutes, let alone ten. I knew how the woman made her extra money. It took at least a two bucks to wash up well and half of that was ice cold water.  But, somehow, it really didn't matter.

We left the beach, and went exploring. There was a ghost of towering pillars that stood like a strange monument not far away. I had seen it from the beach and wanted to explore. You could take it one of two ways. It either looked like the ruin of a bombed out city that had been destroyed so long ago, only the pure white skeletal towers remained and the ashes of destruction had been long blown away.  It could also be an uncovered ancient ruin that archived a long lost civilization. He told me it was actually just a huge hotel and resort that was started years before and ran out of money before it could be finished. The owner just went away and left it as it stood. Nobody ever did anything about it.

"That's the way it is down here," he said. "It doesn't bother anyone, so who cares? Leave it alone."

We explored all around the pillars and half finished rooms. The foundation was all there. It would have been a very expansive and beautiful resort if it had ever been finished. Now, it had a strange, ethereal feeling about it, as if it was standing there lonely, waiting for something or someone to rescue it from the eventual fate of crumbling and being covered by the shifting sands of the desert.

Returning to the beach, we ate lunch and then went swimming in the glimmering blue green Sea of Cortez. Although it was hard to swim through the water because of it's buoyant texture, it was a delight to just let the salt hold up my body and bounce along on top of the rolling water. So much so, that my partner had to come rescue me as I had floated almost out of sight and coming back in was too much of a task to do alone.

We had one more night on the beach and one more sunrise of psychedelic white, orange, yellow and pink before we had to leave. I threw the shells I had collected back into the sea, all except one. I still have that one.  In some way, it seemed rather sacrilegious to move all the shells from this idyllic home to a shelf in a house in the San Fernando Valley.

After showering and dressing and packing the car, we drove into San Felipe proper for a final afternoon and evening before the trip back. We found a wealth of comfortable motels and a main hotel and selected one with a patio restaurant. As much as I loved the two days of reliving my wandering youth on the beach and the wonders of the Sea of Cortez, I have to admit that a hot tub and a moonlight dinner of lobster listening to local musicians was very welcome.

After picking up a few souvenirs for the kids and storing in more packaged food, ice and bottled drinks for the trip back, we had to head for home and the grind of the work week in Los Angeles. The adventure was wonderful. A flat on the way back added to the adventure when a truck full of workers headed north stopped and helped change the tire and shared Cerveza with us.

I believe because of it's sheer and loving simplicity, the trip became one of the most memorable birthday gifts I ever received and one of the fondest memories in my life.  It was the last time I ever slept on a beach all night in the open or walked a mile out on the sea bottom at sunrise and saw the rainbows of a new day reflected at my feet, surrounded by living starfish and sand dollars.

My friend and I went separate ways long ago. For whatever reasons, people change and life goes on. I found someone new. He found someone new. Sometimes I wonder if he ever remembers this little road trip present he gave me. If he does, I hope he knows how much those four days meant to me.  I'm reminded whenever I pull out of the garage and look up at my vaquero's hat hanging near the door.

I live in California and make my living writing technical copy for the electronics/industrial industry.  Now that I'm past sixty, I'm setting aside time to try to make the transition to nonfiction essays and fiction which have always been a goal, but schedules have never allowed.

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